Small is Beautiful

[translated by Melippa and revised by Sheri Parpia, originally published August 31, 2002]

Mexico, as we all know, is a land of contradictions and paradoxes. The historian John Womack opens his famous book on Emiliano Zapata saying theirs is “a history of peasants who did not want to change, and thus started a revolution”.

Today, at the beginning of the Third Millennium, and in direct contrast to neoliberal homogenization, a large number of widely diverse social, political, economic and cultural activities remain present. Native peoples continue to strongly defend their right to determine their own means of livelihood, communal spaces and lifestyles, which are in clear contrast to prevailing values. Their resistance fuels a permanent social war – at times covert, at times apparent – which, among other things, plays on the imagination. This war sometimes affects city dwellers, producing interesting feedback effects. As an example of this, let us consider three recent grassroots movements that have had significant nationwide repercussions.

The first is the movement against the construction of a new airport near Atenco, a rural village a few kilometers east of Mexico City. In October 2001 President Vicente Fox, offering ridiculously low compensations, decreed the expropriation of the village’s communal land for reasons of public interest. Atenco, deprived of its main economic resources was thus doomed to disappear. Fearlessly, its inhabitants organized periodic demonstrations in Mexico City. Marching in closed ranks, they would invade the city center waving their machetes – “not weapons, but work tools”, they explained – making them resound rhythmically against the asphalt of the urban jungle. When the government started surveying and demolishing, Atenco’s inhabitants put up barricades without hesitation.

Mainstream newspapers and televisions, strongly supporting the project, accused them of being lunatics opposing progress – or dangerous subversives. Nonetheless, the movement was increasingly attracting support. At the end of July the crowds were becoming restless. A demonstration degenerated and the police beat a demonstrator to death. In the face of a massive wave of solidarity, the government was forced to back down and revoke the expropriation decree. It was later revealed that the project concealed a massive fraud and that it would have been five times more expensive than enlarging the existing airport. Now the Atencos (as they are popularly known) are considering the possibility of breaking with the state and establishing and autonomous municipality like the Zapatistas.

Another interesting case is that of Oaxaca, a beautiful provincial city recently declared World Heritage. Thanks to Pro-Oax, a civil society organization promoted by the painter Francisco Toledo, the old city center has been restored in the last few years and cultural institutions of a high standard have flourished. The old Dominican monastery has been converted into a high class museum of indigenous culture, and the arts institute can boast an art history library among the best in Latin America.

The city has been in state of ferment since the beginning of the summer, as the mayor has given McDonald’s the authorization to open a new shop on the main square, the Zocalo. Here, in the shade of hundred-year-old trees and historical buildings, traditional restaurants offer local specialties – the same spicy cuisine that attracted Italo Calvino’s attention in his novel Sapore sapere. A new movement was immediately born, promoted by Pro-Oax, to protest against the infamous multinational, well known for underpaying its employees, serving low-quality meat, causing deforestation and using genetically modified ingredients.

As in Atenco, the secret weapon was local imagination. Sunday August 18 Pro-Oax organized a large open-air party at the Zocalo, giving away 4,000 tamales – the famous corn roulades that are the pride of the local cuisine – and hundreds of liters of fruit shakes. One of several banners, all ironic and good-humored, read No to McZocalo. Within a couple of hours, Pro-Oax activists, wearing McDonalds-style hats, had collected more than 5,000 signatures asking for the revocation of McDonald’s license and the holding of a referendum.

On August 27 the Grand Commission of the Local Parliament officially declared that it shared the concern of preserving the historical old city center. McDonald’s was caught on the hop – although it is too early to tell, it is hard to believe that the multinational will decide to expose itself to new protests, which may have devastating effects on its already tarnished image.

The third movement is based in the city of Cuernavaca, capital of the small state of Morelos, sixty kilometers south of Mexico City. Here the multinational CostCo expects to build a hypermarket inside the wonderful state owned park where the Casinò de la Selva Hotel used to be.

Malcolm Lowry readers will surely remember that the initial scene of Under the Volcano is set exactly in that building: “palatial , a certain air of desolate splendor pervades it.” In its sumptuous gardens, with a marvelous view, the consul and his brother Hugh, a veteran from the Spanish war, had passionate discussions about communism, fascism and human destiny.

Setting aside such literary recollections, it is still true that the hotel, now partially demolished, has been one of the most important centers of cultural life in Cuernavaca for decades.

In June 2001, with the complicity of the local government, CostCo bought the land for a paltry sum, which didn’t take into account many works of art including some important murals, all of which are public property. It then obtained permission to destroy five hectares of woods, thus arousing the ecologists’ anger after having enraged painters.

The Frente Cívico por la defensa del Casinò de la Selva was established in September of the same year. The Frente, supported by the local Greenpeace unit, organized an awareness campaign mainly aimed at the preservation of the hundred-years-old trees.

Popular response was quite weak at the beginning. On Wednesday August 21, however, the police made a big mistake – they violently repressed a peaceful demonstration of the Frente, arresting 32 people (including Pietro Ameglio, an Italian-born naturalized Mexican citizen), beating and jailing them.

These events triggered the “Atenco effect” – what started as a hesitant movement of intellectuals ended up involving not only wide sectors of the urban population, but also peasants from nearby villages. Among these is Tepoztlán, a community that a few years ago was the center of a large movement against the creation of a golf course.

Given these circumstances, and also due to pressure from Greenpeace and Amnesty International, the Morelos government was forced to hastily release the prisoners. On Tuesday August 27, 15,000 demonstrators invaded the conservative town of Cuernavaca – noticeably, among them, a group from Atenco with their unfailing machetes. “Better a naturalized Mexican than a degenerate Mexican”, a banner read, alluding to the xenophobic campaign promoted by the local press against Ameglio and a couple of other foreign activists.

Now the Frente is asking for a referendum which it has good a chance of winning. In the meanwhile it has called for a “cart war” against CostCo, which comprises several supermarket chains, including the well known Comercial Mexicana. This form of boycott had already been exercised during the Vietnam War – shoppers fill their carts and leave the supermarket without making any purchases.

The moral of the story? Machetes and corn can have the upper hand over financial maneuvers.

PS – What about the Zapatistas? A lot has been said – often a lot of nonsense – about the comandancia’s prolonged silence. It’s not worth spending any time here on the absurd speculations made on this topic. One thing is certain. Marcos, after often saying too much, is now keeping quiet, but the communities putting up resistance are making themselves heard. And they do it in several ways, for example by strengthening the structures of the autonomous municipalities, by increasingly denouncing the “dirty war” (three killings in the past few weeks) and by keeping up the meetings with the Mexican and international civil society. Over the past few weeks even a new free radio has appeared, transmitting rebellious messages on 102.9 FM from an unidentified mountain in South-East Mexico …

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